This last week I ran a short survey canvassing opinions on Manitoba’s Bill 18. I’ve received 85 responses. I’m not an expert at statistics, so I’ve made the results publicly available in case anyone wants to take issue with any of the conclusions I’m going to draw.
The survey, carried out through the “Citizens concerned about Bill 18” Facebook group, was targeted at those who opposed the Bill and live in Steinbach and the surrounding area. Right off the bat, there are two general statistics you should know in order to frame these results. First, 73% of those who filled out the survey said that they do not support Bill 18 as it is currently written. This is not surprising—this survey was specifically aimed at those who opposed the Bill. In actuality, support for Bill 18 in Manitoba has been almost unanimous. According to various sources, Bill 18 has been almost a non-issue outside of the Steinbach area. Only a single school (as far as I know) has released a statement opposing the Bill, while several schools (including the entirety of the Hanover School Division, which encompasses Steinbach and the surrounding towns) have made statements supporting the Bill. (It’s been pointed out that since I started writing this article, several other schools have also spoken out, including Calvin Christian School and the principals of Linden Christian School and Brandon’s Christian Heritage School)
The second interesting statistic is that slightly over half of the people who responded think that Bill 18 will be struck down. Again, this doesn’t at all jive with what I’ve been hearing from various sources. According to Manitoba’s Education Minister, Nancy Allan, the Bill faces almost no threat whatsoever (saying “There will be no compromise on that. We feel strongly that all students deserve to be in a safe and caring learning environment,” and “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let faith-based schools opt out of providing a safe and caring environment for their students.”). The opposition has been vocal, but is comprised of only a very, very tiny segment of the population.
The good news from the survey: very few people directly contradicted themselves. The majority of people who said that the main problem with Bill 18 was its vague definition of “bullying” also said that were this definition clarified, they would back the Bill. 23% of the people who responded would pass the Bill if it contained a clearer definition; another 13% would pass the Bill if the Bill added protection for people being bullied because of their religious beliefs.
That still leaves a large group that opposed the Bill for another reason: they believe that private schools should have the right to discriminate against certain groups of students in accordance to the schools’ religious beliefs.
The meat of the survey was a series of five statements.
If you believe that schools have the right to disallow student groups that conflict with the school’s religious beliefs, which of the following do you think should be allowed?
- A private Christian school disallowing gatherings of LGBTQ students
- A private Christian school disallowing gatherings of students who are members of other religions
- A private secular school disallowing gatherings of Christian students
- A private Mormon school disallowing gatherings of Christian students
- A private Mormon school disallowing gatherings of black students
My objective was to pinpoint exactly where this line is drawn—at what point does the schools’ right override the students’, and vice-versa? I hoped these questions would make for some interesting results, and I was right.
Identifying the threat
Right off the bat, 30% of those who responded to the question said that Christian schools should have the right to ban LGBTQ groups (LGBTQ being a blanket term for every person who identifies themselves as anything other than strictly heterosexual), and that’s it. At first glance, this honestly surprised me. A Muslim-Christian alliance? Protected. Gay-Straight alliance? Banned. It seems very strange for people to argue that the threat was forcing schools to allow groups that conflicted with their own beliefs, and you would think that students of other religions would be at the top of that list.
Also somewhat surprising was a pretty stunning double-standard: out of all the people who said that a Christian school should have the right to ban gatherings of students belonging to other religions, 30% of them turned around and said that a Mormon school should not have the right to ban Christian groups. It’s the exact same question phrased two different ways: should a religious institution be allowed to ban gatherings of students of another religion? The answer for that 30%: yes, as long as it isn’t mine. That number jumps to over 50% if it was a private secular school instead of a private Mormon school.
The final statement of the batch is the most telling. Out of all the people who argued that a Christian school should have the right to ban LGBTQ groups, only 10% of them said that a Mormon school should have the right to ban gatherings of black students.
You’re probably going to have one of two reactions to this number: either this isn’t a big deal, or it is. And that reaction is the linchpin of the Bill 18 debate. The reason is this: for the majority of the opponents of Bill 18—90% of them—these are two entirely different questions. But for the majority of the LGBTQ-friendly population, these two questions are, in practise, identical.
The common question is this: can a private religious school discriminate against a group that is at odds with their religious beliefs, even though that specific group’s right to gather is a protected human right?
Conservative Mormonism teaches that black skin is caused by sin—it’s taken many, many years for black people to achieve acceptance within the Mormon church, and there are still holdouts against it. The majority of Mormons would dismiss this belief as archaic and untrue. But within certain groups, this is a deeply held religious belief.
Conservative Christianity teaches that any sexual orientation other than “straight” is a sinful perversion—it’s taken many, many years for LGBTQ people to achieve acceptance within the Christian church, and there are still holdouts against it. The majority of Christians would dismiss this belief as archaic and untrue. But within certain groups, this is a deeply held religious belief.
For many of us, these are almost identical situations. Both are religious institutions discriminating against a protected people group, a group defined by genetic predisposition rather than choice. Of course, not everyone agrees with that:
The question about a private Mormon school disallowing gatherings of black students is a different issue because we’re dealing with choices (Anonymous)
…but that’s not a generally accepted view. We have a pretty good understanding of sexual orientation, and generally people “choose” to be LGBTQ in the same sense that people “choose” to be straight: it isn’t really a choice at all, and I’m sure many of the LGBTQ students in Steinbach, as sad as it is, wish they could choose to be otherwise.
In the greater population, race and sexual orientation are viewed as extremely similar traits and are equally protected. The major differences between race and sexual orientation is that sexual orientation is something that can be malleable, but more importantly, that sexual orientation is something that can be concealed: you can refrain from broadcasting your orientation, but you cannot do the same about your race. This makes discrimination easier to justify against sexual orientation—the majority of the time these people aren’t being asked to not be gay, they’re simply being asked to refrain from broadcasting that fact.
Even among conservative Christians it’s generally accepted that your sexual orientation isn’t something that you can simply choose to change. Instead, conservative Christians have moved to paint the practise of orientation as being separate from the orientation itself. Recently, this has come up again and again as what Christians refer to as not having a problem with “orientation”, but with “lifestyle”:
Christians do not believe that people who are gay are bad, and are not taught to hate gay people, but love them, they believe that it is the lifestyle that is bad and they hate the lifestyle that gay people practise. This is where some people get confused, and hate the person, and not only the lifestyle. (Abe Wiebe)
The problem of the 90%
So, what does this all mean?
Mostly importantly, I believe that this means that the debate over Bill 18 is not, as Steinbach Christian High School and Southland Church would like to argue, about religious freedom or the definition of “bullying”. People don’t truly believe that religious schools should be allowed to freely discriminate against groups of students based solely on their deeply-held beliefs. And any discussion of the Bill lands us squarely back in the LGBTQ-rights debate.
And here’s the problem: we won’t agree, and odds are if you’re opposed to Bill 18 you don’t agree with a number of the things I’ve written above, despite how factual I think the things I wrote are. We won’t agree because, ultimately, this is more a LGBTQ-rights debate than anything else, and that’s a debate that’s drowning in opinions, emotions, and religious dogmas. At least one person has accused me of “playing the race card” instead of making a real argument, without understanding that for the majority of us the fight for the acceptance of minority racial groups and the fight for the the acceptance of the LGBTQ population really is the exact same thing, and we believe that our opponents are simply those who are standing on the wrong side of history.
And that’s it. That’s the stalemate. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion, because this is a problem that pits religious dogma against fundamental human rights. It’s an argument over whether or not religious beliefs can trump human rights—and rest assured, these are the definition of human rights. In Manitoba, these issues fall under not only the federal Human Rights Act, but Manitoba’s own Human Rights Code, assented into law in 1987. According to Manitoba’s local Code, Manitoba recognizes that:
- implicit in the above principle is the right of all individuals to be treated in all matters solely on the basis of their personal merits, and to be accorded equality of opportunity with all other individuals;
- to protect this right it is necessary to restrict unreasonable discrimination against individuals, including discrimination based on stereotypes or generalizations about groups with whom they are or are thought to be associated, and to ensure that reasonable accommodation is made for those with special needs;
- in view of the fact that past discrimination against certain groups has resulted in serious disadvantage to members of those groups, and therefore it is important to provide for affirmative action programs and other special programs designed to overcome this historic disadvantage;
- much discrimination is rooted in ignorance and education is essential to its eradication, and therefore it is important that human rights educational programs assist Manitobans to understand all their fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as their corresponding duties and responsibilities to others; and
- these various protections for the human rights of Manitobans are of such fundamental importance that they merit paramount status over all other laws of the province.
And in part 2, it’s been placed into law that the Code applies to gender identity and sexual orientation.
This is why the fight over Bill 18 is so important, so heated, and why it won’t end when Bill 18 inevitably passes into law. What Bill 18 proposes, and what the opposition is so against, are basic human rights that have already been ratified at both the federal and provincial level. And when religious dogma and human rights are at odds with each other, there’s always going to be trouble.